“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (vv. 4–5).
John Calvin, commenting on today’s passage, makes the point that “everything connected with our salvation ought to be ascribed to God as its author.” This statement is quite radical in light of common beliefs about salvation that we find in the Christian community. Most professing Christians are happy to attribute their salvation to divine grace. Few would say that they deserve heaven. Yet when questions are asked about the reasons why people choose faith in Christ, many believers are unwilling to say that God chooses some for salvation or authors their decision to believe. In the name of a particular view of free will that says we must, at every point, have the equal ability to choose between right and wrong, many Christians end up denying—perhaps without meaning to—God’s sovereign, effectual grace.
Calvin takes from Scripture his view that every part of salvation is authored by God. This includes even our decision to believe. We believe only because the Lord makes us willing to believe. Apart from grace, we are fully unwilling to believe. Our hearts are dead in sin, and dead hearts—just like dead bodies—cannot move of their own accord (Eph. 2:1–3). We must not stretch the metaphor too far; Paul is not saying that human beings are unable to make choices without God’s grace. Unredeemed sinners, after all, make choices every day. What the Apostle means is that unless God’s grace resurrects our dead hearts, we cannot make decisions that are pleasing to the Lord. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8), and to be dead in trespasses and sin is to be in or controlled by the flesh.
If we are dead with respect to the things of God, unable to choose what the Lord finds pleasing—and He certainly approves of the choice to repent and believe in Christ alone for salvation—then our Creator must intervene drastically if we are to be redeemed. He changes our hearts without our asking Him to do so, making us willing to believe. This work is referred to in theological categories as God’s work of regeneration, and it is described in Ephesians 2:4–7. Even while we were dead in our trespasses, the Lord brought us to new spiritual life and, as a consequence, we believed. Faith does not precede regeneration. It is not that we believe and then our hearts are changed; rather, we believe after God first changes our hearts. Regeneration precedes faith, which is a gift, part of what is “not our own doing” (vv. 8–10). Having been given new hearts, we cannot help but believe.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
God’s saving grace is not weak but powerful and effectual to save. It can bring dead souls to life, and since the life that God gives is far more powerful than death, no one to whom saving grace is shown will fail to be regenerated. If God wants to save someone, that person will be saved. No resistance to divine grace can endure. We therefore pray for God to change hearts, knowing that salvation is His powerful work alone.